Saturday, September 5, 2020

REVIEW: The Haunted Monastery: A Judge Dee Mystery (book) by Robert van Gulik

From what I can tell, The Haunted Monastery was Robert van Gulik's sixth Judge Dee historical mystery, although there was technically one Judge Dee novel before all of those, van Gulik's translation of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

This review contains slight spoilers.


Judge Dee is traveling with his three wives when the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse, forcing him to seek shelter at a Taoist monastery. When a gust of wind blows open the window in his room, Dee witnesses a possible crime: a man in a helmet attacking a naked one-armed woman. However, when he asks to see the part of the monastery where the crime occurred, not only is there no trace of the man and woman, there's also no window. The only window it could have been was bricked up long ago.

The weather has given Judge Dee the beginnings of a terrible cold, so he wonders whether the scene he saw was an hallucination, or possibly even ghosts. However, as he meets the Abbot and the other visitors at the monastery, he strongly suspects that his vision might be connected to the three relatively recent deaths that occurred at this same monastery, all involving young women.

I had previously read van Gulik's translation of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and enjoyed it much more than I had expected to, so I was curious to see what his original Judge Dee mysteries would be like. This is the first one I've tried. Although it wasn't bad, I was left feeling a bit disappointed. One of the best things about Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was van Gulik's analysis of its legal aspects, and I had hoped that this original mystery would work in some similarly fascinating details. Unfortunately, that wasn't really the case, and van Gulik's postscript was brief.

One thing I did find interesting, and that I wish van Gulik had thought worth talking about in his postscript, was Judge Dee's reaction to a female character who was questioning her sexuality and asked Dee for advice. He was much more open-minded than I'd have expected, telling her to take her time and make whatever decision felt best to her. Although I doubted he'd have approved of her being in a lesbian relationship, since he didn't approve of nuns due to his belief that women were meant to marry and bear children, he made it clear that the decisions of consenting adults who didn't have minors or dependents to worry about weren't his or the law's concern. (FYI, don't read this part of my review and go into this expecting a lesbian relationship. Things are not what they seem.)

The mystery was so-so, and somewhat tamer than I expected based on what I'd remembered of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. No torture or beatings at all - I suppose van Gulik felt he should scale that sort of thing that back in his original mysteries. There was one instance of "justice accomplished via gruesome murder," though, and the monastery had a Gallery of Horrors, statues depicting the various ways sinners could expect to be punished.

It seemed like most of this mystery just sort of fell into place as Judge Dee ran up and down stairs from one room to another, trying not to look as sick as he felt (until he magically stopped feeling sick). There were a few details I liked, and Miss Ting was a nice character, but overall this wasn't particularly memorable. I do still want to read van Gulik's other Judge Dee mysteries, though.


Several black-and-white illustrations by the author, done in an imitation of 6th-century Chinese blockprints, a list of the characters (which I just noticed van Gulik grouped together according to the mysteries they were involved in, even though all the mysterious goings on in this book were pretty well blended together), a map of the monastery, and a brief postscript by the author.

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